Apple’s Stuff Doesn’t “Just Work” Anymore

Life is full of cycles that rise and fall. Everything degrades over time. And that’s a damn shame. But that’s life and life ain’t fair. Mobile devices have become a part of many of our lives. Certainly, some can live without them, but for those of us who have bought into the convenience that mobile devices offer we’ve almost turned them into another appendage that we can’t imagine living without. If you’re that person, then challenges arise when things don’t work the way they are supposed to. At times it is like trying to walk through life with a brace or a cast on an injured part of your body. You get used to it, but you sure don’t like it.

RottenAppleNow for the fanboys who think this is an “Apple is doomed” post, shut up before you spout off, before you fall of whatever bandwagon you’re on. You’re wrong. This is simply a post that points up my frustrations with a variety of Apple’s devices, software and services. I know others experience some of the same frustrations from my research. I also know that not everyone experiences some or any of them. Mobile solutions all have many moving parts and variables. The user is the biggest of those variables. Perhaps we should all be amazed that Apple or any other manufacturer gets as much right as they do with products. I know I am. But, that makes the things that go wrong that much harder to swallow. Apple and its users are famous for overworking the cliché, “it just works.” I’d offer that this is largely true comparatively speaking. But when it doesn’t just work in the context of the perpetual hype machine that cliché gets turned on its head and becomes “it just needs more work.”

Apple isn’t alone in this. Other companies fall victim to the “need a new thing” syndrome. Witness Evernote. But, in my opinion, Apple’s “it just works” reputation is wearing thin because of its communication strategies around these issues and the fact that it has its own way of responding to user complaints. Live by the cliché you created and die by the cliché.

I continue to find it intriguing that we are more obsessed by sales numbers and early impressions than we are by performance and reliability over time. Perhaps that’s because a part of the mobile culture implies a certain disposability. Certainly the markets react that way. But, since Apple is a company that controls the entire widget with its devices and software, than it is also the company that needs to make sure that all of the moving parts not only work out of the box, but to continue to operate smoothly as time goes by.

Below is a list of things that I find just absolutely troublesome with the Apple products I use. I do use a lot of them. I have an iMac, a Macbook Pro, an iPad Air, an iPad mini with Retina Display, and an iPhone 5s. I’m running OSX Mavericks and iOS 7.04 on those devices. I also have an Apple TV and an Apple Airport Extreme router all with the latest firmware updates.

iOS 7.0.4 Devices

iPhone 5s

This is the Apple device I have the most difficulties with. Since it’s the flagship device, that makes the pain points more painful. I don’t buy the apologists who say that iOS 7 was such a massive rebuild that we should forgive and wait for updates. In fact, I find that insulting, and think anyone who paid the prices Apple charges for its devices should be insulted as well. We don’t get a discount when things don’t work as advertised. We pay extra with our frustration. I especially don’t buy that excuse when we see and hear more about cosmetic changes in each new developer beta than we do about the under the hood stuff that should make the phone operate as advertised. Yeah, I know there are NDAs that the developers sign, and it is an easy and lazy blog post to put up screen shots of UI changes. But, even though I’m not a fan of the latest UI design concepts in iOS 7, Apple is losing me here on practical functionality.

springboardingSpringboard Crashes: This is happening more frequently as the days go on. For those unfamiliar or who haven’t seen this, a springboard crash looks like your iPhone is rebooting. It isn’t. Something somewhere went wrong and the Springboard, which is the software that controls the home screen, is restarting. There are some instances when I can recreate a Springboard crash. They include closing Apple Maps after I have made or received a phone call, and after a series of many phone calls. But mostly this is random behavior. Where this annoying bug crossed the pain threshold for me was when I was driving in an unfamiliar area using Apple Maps and the device performed a spring board reset while I was driving. After one recent Springboard crash, every App that I had given permission to access my photos went through a sequence of requesting permission again.

Again, there are many moving parts here, but I’d like to think the device could stay operating when I’m operating a moving vehicle. Unacceptable.

Touch ID: The magic of Touch ID seems to fade with time. I’ve found that over time Touch ID decreases in how well it reads my fingerprints, necessitating that I re-register my fingerprints to make it somewhat consistently usable again. Perhaps this is just the same annoyance that we’re used to when websites and Apps require us to reenter our credentials, but I also find that randomly after a SpringBoard crash I will have to re-enter my security code for Touch ID to work. Bottom line, we still don’t have a consistent security mechanism for accessing our devices quickly.

Sharing Info: I wrote about this extensively when the iPhone 5s came out. I watched an Apple Genius throw up his hands in despair and say wait for an update. I’m still waiting. Essentially, I can’t share a photo, link, or other shareable info via the Share Sheet function using the iPhone 5s. This has been true with every iteration of iOS 7, so far, although randomly this function would work after a system update. I’ve rebuilt the phone from scratch after reach iOS update and that doesn’t solve the issue either. (I never restore from backup when I do this.) I see this randomly, but not always on both iPads as well.

IMG_0260-349x620Volume Ins and Outs: I alternate, depending on circumstances, between using ear buds, a Jawbone Bluetooth earpiece, and just the phone speakers for phone calls and other audio. There is a remarkable inconsistency to volume when I move from one audio solution to the next. What I’m trying to convey here is that after using one solution for awhile I’ll have to spend time adjusting the phone to the next solution. Randomly, I can not make a successful adjustment to the volume output without rebooting the device.

App Store: If big box stores had the display problems online App stores do, they would quickly be out of business. Oh, wait. Some are. What’s maddening here is that updates to Apps will sometimes show up and download and sometimes show up and not download. I’ve turned off automatic updates for Apps, and last week I experienced a situation after a SpringBoard crash where Apps were auto updating again. Woefully inconsistent behavior, but then, why devote resources to fix something if you’re making millions of dollars off it.

Battery Life: This is odd and also disturbing. During a regular day in my life I don’t have issues with battery life. I get through an entire day without even thinking of charging the phone. But, I recently spent two weeks on the road, traveling a good deal of the time when I was away. What I noticed while traveling was that battery life drained much more quickly. I chalked that up to the iPhone constantly trying to ping WiFi networks, so I turned off WiFi when I was on the road. That helped in some instances and in some not. Of course if you have to turn off WiFi in these cases, you’re disabling the benefits of WiFi helping to locate where you are when traveling.  This was most noticeable and repeatable if I had the iPhone 5s in an interior pocket, due to cold weather.

I buy that it is easy to turn off WiFi in these circumstances, but the logic of this seems counterintuitive. If one is traveling in unfamiliar territory, one could easily assume that is when one needs the benefits of WiFi assisted location services the most. Having to turn off WiFi to save battery life when in an area with more WiFi signals than you can count seems not only counterintuitive, but wrong thinking from an engineering standpoint. It’s like saying, yes you can drive your car down this road, but only with with two wheels.

iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display

I have far less issues with iOS 7.0.4 on both iPads than I do with the iPhone 5s. I don’t use those devices the same way I do the iPhone and that, along with the inherent differences between the two device categories probably accounts for the different behaviors. Springboard crashes occur, but less frequently and with more randomness. The issues with the App Store though are more frequent on both iPads than they are with the iPhone 5s.

Bluetooth Connectivity: I used to frequently use an external speaker streaming though Bluetooth when I watched video or listened to music. Since iOS 7.0.4 this sometimes works and some times does not. Again the randomness of the failure adds to the frustration.

Mavericks Devices

os-x-mavericks-logoI am using both a mid 2011 iMac and an early 2011 MacBook Pro, so neither is the latest technology that Apple offers. (Both are scheduled to be replaced this year.) Both are running Mavericks. Both were built to order with large hard drives and 8GB of memory when I bought them. Both perform reasonably well, but there are issues that I associate more with Mavericks than I do with the hardware.

Browsers: I alternate between Safari, Chrome, and Firefox on both devices. Suffice it to say none of the browser choices is optimal. Safari provides the best battery life with Mavericks, but the browser loves to lock up in my typical usage. As context, I’m not one who keeps many tabs open at all times. Never have been. When Safari crashes it is usually pretty spectacular and there is no rhyme or reason to what triggers the crash.

Up until Mavericks I could have my normal array of applications open on both machines and very rarely experienced a browser crash when I was doing some heavy lifting. Since Mavericks I am constantly monitoring how many applications I have open.

Firefox and Google’s Chrome (I have the latest public non-beta builds running) both operate as if they were version one applications at times. I say at times because there is a randomness with the stalling and sputtering I experience. Typically this comes with the same websites and services I frequent every day as a part of my work and that makes the randomness appear even more so. That leads to what I think is a bigger issue.

Talking Back to the Internet: There are very few software applications these days that don’t talk back through the Internet to a server of some kind. You expect that behavior with a browser, obviously. But file syncing Apps, iTunes, iPhoto, Skitch, Evernote, etc… (some of the Apps I use) are always calling home for some purpose of the other. I am not technically proficient enough to say this with any authority, but it seems to me that it is logical that our reliance on work being done on servers in the Cloud and Cloud services has essentially created a party line effect where too many Apps are talking at the same time. Is it an OS responsibility to sort that out? I’m not sure. But when these clogs occur, it sure does hamper the OS tremendously.

If you ever want an example of this, boot up your system with WiFi disabled and no network connection whatsoever. Watch as whatever Apps you have running on startup hang and drag your system to a halt trying to communicate with their respective home servers. You’d think somewhere along the programming chain someone would have figured out a way to check to see if a network connection was active or not.

Third Party Storage: On the iMac I have two separate 1TB external hard drives connected via Firewire for backup and archiving purposes. I, unfortunately, have learned to keep these in a turned off state, except to use them for backing up or archiving. The reason? Randomly, either or both will just fail to communicate with the iMac, forcing me to shut everything off and reboot from a cold start. This typically happens after the iMac has gone into a sleep state multiple times. So, much for automated backups. This isn’t a problem with the make of the hard drives, because I’ve had this same issue with various makes of external hard drives while attempting to find a solution for this problem.

A Reboot a Day Keeps Some Issues Away: I had thought we had passed the stage where we needed to reboot a device every now and then to keep things running well. After installing Mavericks that isn’t the case anymore. After a typical morning of work, I’ll find whichever device I’m using begin to slow down and scream for more memory. I’ve gotten used to rebooting one or both during the time I eat lunch, hoping to start afresh after filling my gut. It doesn’t take too long though for memory to fill up like a starving man at a buffet table.

itunesiTunes: Is there anyone out there who actually likes iTunes? I can’t imagine there is. iTunes is like that despicable relative that you know you have to tolerate at family functions, but you pray won’t show up. No matter how many revamps its gone through, it is still a bloated mess. iTunes reminds me of those older homes in rural America that kept adding additions on as the family kept growing. You could paint over the entire structure once a new addition was added, but you could always tell that things were added on in ways that made no architectural sense.

Apple TV

Apple-TV-575x463There was a time that this was my favorite “fire and forget it” Apple device. The Apple TV always worked when I needed it. Sadly, those days are gone. Within the last four months I have had to reboot the device more times than I can count in order for it to reconnect with Apple’s servers. We’ve gotten into a habit here of rebooting the Apple TV about a half hour before we’re going to watch a movie rental. We call it de-worming the Apple. But I guess when something is just a hobby, the basics don’t get as much attention as adding new content does.

There are three themes that run through all of this:

  1. It is tough to have any device always talking to the Internet because an OS can’t possibly account for all of the variables that the Internet can throw at it. Things might get sandboxed in today’s modern operating systems to keep entire systems from crashing when an App fails, but there are too many stray grains of sand that are leaking through the barrier.
  2. Randomness isn’t righter. Bugs are bugs. They exist on every system and in all software. When a bug is more random than repeatable it turns the frustrating into maddening.
  3. Time degrades all things without maintenance. In whatever age we’re in with our computing lives, the maintenance has to always be the responsibility of the user. But I would argue that in order for the user to exercise that responsibility, companies need to pay attention to the products they’ve previously sold as much as the ones that they are working on next. We’re at the point where companies are kicking the older kids out of the house each time a new one is expected.

Apple has had it lucky. Along the way it created a mythology that its products “just work.” It did so at the expense of its competitors and to great reward. That mythology is still largely true. I still believe Apple’s operating systems and devices are the best I’ve used and the best I can use currently. That said, the mythology creates an expectation that Apple has not been meeting lately. The seams are staring to show more and more. You can call some of these issues first world problems. But in order to play in Apple’s sandbox, you’ve got to pay first world prices. I think those that do have a right to expect first world results in exchange. And when something falters or fails, I believe those users should expect first world speed, first world communication, and first world support on the way to fixing the problems.

Bear in mind that Apple isn’t the only big company with these kind of issues. I just spent two weeks plus on the road with a selection of mobile devices and software. All of which exhibited behavior I’m sure the creators, designers, developers, and engineers would not be proud of. In the next few days I’ll be reporting on some of those experiences as well, both positive and negative.